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Review: Side by Side

By Leah Churner on August 22, 2012

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End times for film are close, just not as close as they used to be. Cinema’s apocalypse appeared to be in full swing in Wim Wenders’s 1982 made-for-TV documentary Room 666, in which the director interviewed a series of his peers in a hotel room during that year’s Cannes festival. The question for all of them was the same: “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” Three decades later, in Christopher Kenneally’s Side by Side, producer-host Keanu Reeves probes similar issues with directors, cinematographers, editors, and actors. The new question can be summed up as, “Which do you like better, film or digital?”

The responses indicate a waning sense of urgency. In recent years, the three top motion-picture camera manufacturers have ceased production of 35mm equipment, dozens of photochemical processing labs have shuttered, thousands of theaters have converted to digital projection, and Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “Digital”—high-definition video technology—is the future, yet celluloid is still a viable mainstream option for image capture. The three top-grossing movies of 2012 at time of writing—The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and The Dark Knight Rises—were shot at least partly on 35mm.  Perhaps it’s just human nature that the closer we get to the end, the less panic we feel. (This is why the restoration of Dr. Strangelove was such an apt choice for Film Forum’s side-by-side demonstration comparing 35mm projection with state-of-the-art digital, as part of its series “This is DCP” back in March.)

The “666” in Wenders’s title seems hyperbolic in retrospect; Kenneally’s title choice is no better. It primes us to expect something along the lines of those satisfying split-screen commercials for household cleaning products (“Tired of all those ugly cue marks, emulsion scratches, and hairs in the gate? Watch how easily digital cinema cuts slime and grime and saves money and time!”). Yet a side-by-side comparison with film is one thing this digitally shot documentary cannot do.

You may be wondering, “Why Keanu Reeves?” He’s no tech wiz. At one point a little kid wants to know how Keanu “went into the computer” in the Matrix, and the actor struggles to explain motion capture to the tot. And as a host, he’s not exactly Robert Osborne, seeming less at home with conversational English than Lars von Trier. Keanu’s main qualification is his passionate curiosity about the digital transition, and his unvarnished demeanor is an unexpected asset. Now 49 years old, Keanu scarcely looks a day over 30, and his youthful inquisitiveness keeps the proceedings buoyant—even as he describes such potentially dry subjects as the chemical composition of cellulose acetate and the invention of the CCD chip.

With its jaunty editing and bleep-bloop-bloop “science” music, Side by Side occasionally lapses into Modern Marvels territory, but Keanu deserves credit for his attempt to make learning fun. His only big flub occurs about 90 seconds in, when he informs us that “Photochemical film has been the exclusive format used to capture, develop, project and store moving images for over 100 years.” This is a poorly worded sentence. We know he knows that we know he’s aware of broadcast television, satellite cable, VCRs, DVD players, streaming, downloads, and so forth. What he means is, 35mm film has been the best available format in terms of image quality, and the most reliable for preservation.

Other than that, Kenneally and Keanu do a number of things very well: walking us through the production-to-postproduction workflow; discussing how digital filmmaking has changed the on-set environment; comparing photochemical color timing to digital color correction; chronicling the rise of low-budget feature film production on DV; assessing George Lucas’s role as a driving force behind the development of digital special effects and animation, nonlinear editing and high-definition video equipment; and generally poking holes in some time-honored assumptions about digital media, like the idea that it is “less real” than its analog counterpart.

It’s exciting to hear from today’s directors, who rarely get a chance to talk outside of promoting their latest projects. In addition to the usual suspects (Cameron, Scorsese, Lucas, Lynch) we also get opinions from a pre-superstardom Lena Dunham, a potty-mouthed David Fincher, a dandy Steven Soderbergh (on the record as saying he “hates” 35mm film), and Christopher Nolan, who is the only interviewee sufficiently disgusted with the present situation to seem like he belongs over in Room 666.

Side by Side belongs on television—it would be a perfect fit for a multipart series on the Sundance Channel or IFC. (Many of the questions raised could be expanded into hour-long episodes: has digital filmmaking democratized cinema or not? What have been the major aesthetic trends in digital color correction? Might there be new applications for celluloid in the future? Is Sony the most powerful company in Hollywood?) Too dense and didactic for a feature-length documentary, Side by Side underscores the limitations of the traditional cinema. The distributor, Tribeca Film, has arranged for the narrowest possible theatrical run and destined Side by Side for the small-screen VOD market. Will such be the fate of all films of the future? Who knows. Maybe in another 30 years we’ll still be watching documentaries about the death of film. As Antonioni points out in Room 666: “There is always a gap between today and tomorrow’s mentality that we can’t foresee.”

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